The Question

You'd Choose Your Biases Over Making Money

Even if you can admit that you have some biases, you probably think that you don't let them get in the way of your own self-interest. Well, about that ... you might not be so hot at making good, unbiased decisions as you think. There's a new study from PLOS Computational Biology that shows we tend to hang on to our biases even when they will obviously cost us cold, hard cash.

Going Broke for Biases

Confirmation bias is the well-documented phenomenon of the human tendency to ignore any facts that aren't in line with what they already believe. But cognitive neuroscientist Stefano Palminteri wanted to see if people would stick to their guns even when they were explicitly shown that doing so would go against their self-interest. The two-phase experiment worked like this. In phase one, the 20 participants were presented with a series of made-up symbols, each of which had been arbitrarily given a monetary value. Whichever one they chose, they got the associated payout.

So let's say the first choice is between a green ball and yellow ball. You choose green, and you get \$50. Next, you're given a choice between the yellow ball and a red one. You choose yellow, and you get \$25. Finally, you get a choice between green and red. You go for green and get another \$50.

Now comes phase two. In this part of the experiment, the participants were given the same sorts of choices with one difference: After they made their decision, they get to find out what both symbols were worth, not just the one that they actually chose.

So now, let's go through the series again. You have to choose between green and yellow, and you go for green. Bam, another \$50, plus the info (which you already had) that yellow is worth \$25. Now you choose between yellow and red, and you go for yellow. Here's another \$25, but bad news — red is actually worth \$75. So now your last choice is between green and red, and it seems obvious which one you should go for. Wait, why did you just choose green again? You could have made an extra \$25!

That's right; it turned out that even when participants were explicitly told that some of the options were more valuable than the ones they'd chosen, they still favored the choices that they'd developed a bias for. In other words, if you ever get the sense that somebody is obviously voting against their own self-interest, there's a not-very-good reason for that. And convincing them otherwise is probably going to be an uphill battle.

Breaking Biases for Good

So, it's very difficult to break your own biases, especially if you can't even see that they are harming you. As Palminteri told New Scientist when discussing this study: "In the end, people will have the impression that they are performing better than they actually are. That could increase self-confidence, and provide a motivational boost." But it's not impossible to move beyond that self-perpetuating cycle.

This 2012 study sought to address racial biases by gradually wearing them down. The researchers' first step was simply identifying participants' biases. Over the course of 12 weeks, they went through a multi-part intervention that began with simply making them aware of the ways in which their biases expressed themselves.

Next, they were shown how implicit and explicit biases can negatively impact the people at the receiving end. Finally, they were introduced to a series of strategies to reduce racial bias, such as stereotype replacement (taking stereotypical views and replacing them with non-stereotypes) and individuation (combatting stereotypes by focusing on personal, rather than perceived group characteristics). While it might seem like you could just skip to the last step, it's no good identifying how you can address your biases if you can't acknowledge them in the first place. So identify your biases! If you don't, they can come back to bite you.